India’s digital future isn’t just in English: BBC launches 4 Indian language services

Niemanlab - November 2016

The BBC World Service has announced the creation of four new Indian language services, as part of its biggest global expansion in more than 70 years. Delhi will become the BBC’s largest bureau outside the U.K. and the BBC will consolidate its position as the biggest foreign news organization in India.

The new language services — Gujarati, Telugu, Marathi and Punjabi — have a combined potential reach of 250 million people in India (and also Pakistan, as well as the large diaspora). (In addition to the Indian language services, the BBC announced seven other new language services: Igbo, Pidgin, and Yoruba in Nigeria; Amharic, Oromo, and Tigrinya in Ethiopia and Eritrea; and Korean.)

The BBC is trying to achieve a global audience of 500 million by 2022 — the year of its centenary — and in that context, it makes sense for it to focus on a country as populous as India, in which it already has a solid brand and existing infrastructure, and create radio, TV, and digital content in these languages.

400 million Indians — around a third of the total population — now have access to the Internet, and future growth will not come from English speakers. Only around 10 percent of the country is fluent in English, leaving more than a billion people who mostly use one or more of the twenty major languages of India.

Internet usage in India is expanding rapidly thanks to the availability of inexpensive smartphones, improving connectivity, and a surge in Indian-made content and apps. This digital revolution is taking place almost entirely on mobile devices, because India’s broadband infrastructure is so limited outside the major cities. Perhaps acknowledging this, the BBC says it will offer more mobile content than ever before. 

“This investment in our Asia region will transform the way our services in the region operate,” said Kayley Rogers, a BBC spokesperson. “Turning it into a digitally oriented production hub will answer the demands of one of the fastest growing mobile markets in the world.”

But reaching these new audiences won’t come cheap. The World Service has received a funding boost of more than $360 million until 2019/20 from the British government, and although a breakdown of where it’s going is unavailable, it is safe to assume that a lot of it will be spent in India. The BBC is creating 157 new roles in India and is also physically expanding the bureau (which currently occupies an entire floor in the multistory headquarters of the Hindustan Times newspaper) in an expensive, central part of Delhi (where a 750 sq ft, 1-bedroom apartment in nearby Bengali Market is on sale for around $1.2 million).

The new Indian language services are scheduled to launch toward the end of 2017, although no specific dates have been set, and there are enormous challenges ahead for the BBC. 

It will not be easy to hire 157 qualified digital journalists, who also possess the required fluency in one of the four languages, in such a short time. The BBC will have to make significant investments in training. Even if they can somehow be found, many of them will have to move to Delhi, an expensive, sometimes intimidating city that’s thousands of miles from the major centers for Gujarati, Telugu, and Marathi speakers. 

In the U.S., there has been a lot of debate about the deterioration of local newspapers and a consequent lack of sustained on-the-ground reporting. Most of the BBC’s 157 Indian recruits will be based in Delhi, a long way from where the news they are reporting is actually happening. According to a BBC source, there will be a few locally based reporters too, but the vast majority of the work will take place in a single bureau in the capital city, relying on information being fed in from a variety of distant sources.

Still, assuming that staff are in position and everything in the bureau is functioning well by the end of 2017, the BBC has waited a long time to create these new services and is making a concerted push for this huge market.

When the BBC World Service was at its peak in India, it had tens (if not hundreds) of millions of radio listeners who relied on its news bulletins as an alternative to the staid state broadcasters and politically biased newspapers that dominated the domestic market. The BBC was synonymous with quality in those days, its presence in India a legacy of the colonial era. As Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s World Service director, puts it: “Through war, revolution and global change, people around the world have relied on the World Service for independent, trusted, impartial news.”

But its importance dwindled as local media developed. In the mid-nineties, the government deregulated broadcasting and a slew of TV news stations appeared. These are now the major forces in Indian news, located across the country and broadcasting in all the languages the BBC is only now beginning to adopt. On top of that, several digital media companies have sprung up over the last few years, some of them already publishing in languages other than English. 

The competition for eyeballs and clicks will be fierce. Luckily, the BBC doesn’t have to worry about revenue. But it remains to be seen whether this is a good investment for British taxpayers.